Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
The federal constitution and the Media Law of 1981 provide the basis for media freedom in Austria, and the government generally respects their protections. However, many press freedom advocates have urged the government to revise the country’s stringent civil and criminal defamation laws, as well as restrictive laws on freedom of information.
In February 2014, Vienna’s public prosecutor dropped legal proceedings against Michael Genner, the chairman of the political asylum advocacy group Asyl in Not, who had been charged with unlawfully advocating for criminal acts in the media in connection with an op-ed arguing that human smugglers perform a public service. The decision to drop the charges followed sharp criticism of the proceedings by press freedom organizations.
In June 2014, the Constitutional Court implemented an April ruling by the European Court of Justice that had overturned a much-debated European Union data-retention law, which required telecommunications companies and internet service providers to store user data for up to six months. The Constitutional Court’s move made such data retention illegal in Austria and compelled authorities to delete data that had been stored under the old rule.
The 2010 Terrorism Prevention Law penalizes the preparation and organization of terrorist acts as well as training for terrorist purposes. Critics argue that the law impinges on freedom of expression by stipulating that individuals who incite hatred or contempt against any group will face up to two years in prison, though no cases on such charges led to convictions in 2014. There was no evidence during the year that a contentious 2012 amendment to the Security Police Act, which enables state authorities to monitor, wiretap, film, and locate individuals, had been used to deter journalistic work or intimidate investigative reporters.
Freedom of information legislation is in place. However, the constitution includes a provision on official secrecy, and the country’s legal framework on access to information was rated the worst among 93 countries evaluated in a September 2013 study by Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy. Advocates have campaigned for a new access to information law in recent years. While the government released a draft bill in 2013, discussion of the issue was stalled in the parliament as of 2014.
The Austrian Communications Authority regulates broadcast licenses and manages frequencies. Since 2010 it has also been responsible for the legal supervision of audiovisual services and the public broadcaster. Its five members are appointed for six years by the head of state on the recommendation of the federal government.
The self-regulatory Austrian Press Council handles complaints regarding content in newspapers and magazines, and on their websites. However, membership in the council is not obligatory for such outlets. In 2014 the Ministry of Justice appealed to the Press Council to rule on an article in the Heute newspaper about prison officials accused of involvement with drug transactions, arguing that the article contained identifying information that could put one official at risk. However, the council rejected the appeal in September, holding that there had been no specific threats against the official, and that the story was in the public interest. Separately, in March the council condemned a satirical cartoon published in the newspaper Zur Zeit that compared party infighting to the 1938 “Kristallnacht” pogrom. However, the decision did not have any effect, as Zur Zeit is not a council member.
Political influence at the Austrian Public Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) remained an issue in 2014. There is no official censorship, though any form of Nazi propaganda or anti-Semitism is prohibited by law, and the authorities restrict access to websites that promote such content. In 2014, the Austrian Federal Court ordered the blocking of two websites used to distribute pirated movies, in a ruling criticized by most parties in the parliament.
Physical attacks against and harassment of journalists are rare. However, an ORF reporter in July 2014 received threats via Facebook after hosting a panel discussion on terrorism and anti-Semitism.
While daily national newspapers are fiercely competitive, the print sector is characterized by regional newspapers that dominate up to 90 percent of their respective markets. Austria’s public broadcasting network operates alongside numerous private outlets. Cable and satellite services are widely available and offer content from both Austrian and German stations, with some of the latter tailoring programming for the Austrian audience. About 81 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2014.
Media ownership is highly concentrated. In many regions of Austria, the largest newspaper also owns the only private radio station, despite the fact that Austria’s Cartel Court has the authority to monitor the media environment to ensure diversity. The Media Transparency Law, which took effect in July 2012, forced public offices, like governmental departments, to disclose their media advertisements for the first time. A 2013 law on corruption defines ORF journalists as public-service employees and sets strict rules regarding the acceptance of benefits.
The government has provided all daily and weekly newspapers with annual direct payments since 1974, with larger amounts of money going to newspapers that are considered especially important contributors to the diversity of opinion. However, the financial situation of many newspapers remains difficult, with sustainability often reliant on these economic subsidies. In 2014, the government announced plans to focus subsidies on newspapers that employed more than a certain number of journalists, prompting the Austrian Newspaper Association to warn that the cuts threatened media diversity.